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Last week, Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa drew fire for wondering in a New York Times interview why the terms “white nationalism” and “white supremacy” are considered offensive. In response, House Republicans on Monday stripped him of his committee assignments, and the House on Tuesday voted to condemn white supremacy. (In a statement, Congressman King condemned white supremacy and insisted his comments have been mischaracterized.) Yet while King himself has become more controversial, he has played a key role in mainstreaming once-fringe positions, like building a border wall or ending birthright citizenship – ideas that have become more popular on the right since President Trump’s election. To supporters at home, King is one of the last defenders of a conservatism that is dead set against abortion, convinced there is only one true kind of marriage, and – in a state that increasingly relies on immigrant labor but remains one of the least diverse in the country – determined to protect itself from the “cultural corruption” they say comes with unrestricted and illegal immigration. “He is a good man,” said the Rev. Cary Gordon, senior pastor at Cornerstone World Outreach church in Sioux City in December. “I think he can have this job for as long as he wants.”
On a Sunday in early December, the Rev. Cary Gordon delivers his weekly sermon to a congregation that fills row after row of plush red pews.
Scripture, he tells them, doesn’t follow people’s preferences or the changing times. “The Bible is the inerrant word of God,” Mr. Gordon says. “To believe that is fundamental to what it means to be a true Christian in this world.”
For worshipers here at Cornerstone World Outreach, as for many others in this northwest Iowa district, life is anchored on a Christian morality that demands strict obedience to God’s law and the law of the land.
And for nine consecutive terms, the voters here have elected a representative who is increasingly regarded by those outside the district as at best controversial – and at worst, racist.
Welcome to Iowa’s Fourth District, home of Republican Rep. Steve King.
Last week, the congressman drew fire for wondering aloud in a New York Times interview why the terms “white nationalism” and “white supremacy” are considered offensive. The comments led House Republicans on Monday to strip Congressman King of committee assignments for the 116th Congress. The House voted 424 to 1 Tuesday to condemn white supremacy, while two other Democrats have introduced censure resolutions against King. (In a statement, King rejected white supremacy and insisted that his comments have been mischaracterized.)
But while the public condemnation – particularly from Republicans – may be new, the tenor of King’s comments was not. King has for years made caustic remarks about unauthorized immigrants with almost no repercussions, and the Iowa lawmaker has been key in mainstreaming once-fringe positions, like building a border wall or ending birthright citizenship. Since President Trump’s election, those ideas have become more popular on the right – even as King himself has become more controversial.
“I tend to walk into a room and people line up on one side or the other, yeah,” he tells the Monitor.
To his supporters here, in the Iowan version of the Bible Belt, he’s a kind of hometown hero. To them, King is one of the last defenders of a conservatism that is dead set against abortion, convinced there is only one true kind of marriage, and – in a state that increasingly relies on immigrant labor but remains one of the least diverse in the country – determined to protect itself from the “cultural corruption” they say comes with unrestricted and illegal immigration. Nothing the national media reports about him is likely to change their minds.
Indeed, King’s resilience in his district serves as a measure of the widening political chasm in this country on questions of culture and race. Where a growing share of the nation accepts, even welcomes, the diversifying face of America, there’s a sense among King’s supporters that those changes are destroying what the Founding Fathers built.
“In the 1950s, they did a comic book called ‘Bizarro World.’ Up is actually down, left is right, right is left,” says Gordon, who has known and supported King for 20 years. “I feel like the political landscape right now in our whole country is kind of Bizarro World.”
‘We’re Christians first’
The Fourth District – which until redistricting in 2013 was the Fifth – is a mostly rural, majority-white area where 39 percent of active voters are registered Republicans. A quarter are Democrats, while about 36 percent are not registered with any party. Before last year’s midterms, King had won nearly every election since 2002 by double digits.
“We’re Christians first. Then we’re conservatives. And then we’re Republicans,” says Jacob Hall, a local sports editor, at a HyVee supermarket just down the road from the Cornerstone church. Mr. Hall is a leader of the Sioux County Conservatives, a group that mobilizes conservative voters, and a veteran of Gordon’s sermons.
“I won’t do or support anything that I don’t think is biblical,” he says. At the top of the list are abortion and same-sex marriage. But immigration is wrapped up in that thinking, too.
Some of it comes from a respect for laws and rules. Hall says all unauthorized immigrants are lawbreakers by definition, which is why he’s fully behind King’s, and the president’s, efforts to secure the border. “I’m pretty sure heaven has gates that people have to go through,” he says.
On a deeper level, though, views on immigration here are colored by a strong opposition to multiculturalism – which King’s supporters see as eroding American heritage and longstanding moral absolutes.
“Here’s what multiculturalism really is: disharmony and antagonism, different cultures vying for dominance,” says Gordon, the pastor.
“They want to go back to the 1950s, to this fairy-tale land where women stayed home and took care of the kids and the men went out and made enough money,” says David Andersen, who teaches political psychology at Iowa State University. “Everybody went to church on Sundays and celebrated Christmas. And frankly, everybody was white and spoke English.”
That view comes directly out of their experience, Professor Andersen adds. As of 2015, immigrants made up only about 5 percent of Iowa’s population. The state is beginning to rely more on immigrant labor, including unauthorized workers, but it’s still more than 90 percent white. That’s truer in King’s district than in any other part of the state.
“They see Latinos from caravans that crash the southern border [on TV]. They see African-Americans from gangland shootings in Chicago,” Andersen says. “Their experience is not what urban Americans experience, where you see people who are nonwhite all the time.”
In his 16 years in office, King has never wavered in protecting what he defines as American culture. He’s been talking about a border wall for years, even building a model of it on the House floor in 2006. Since 2011, he’s tried five times to end birthright citizenship through legislation. (His latest attempt was at the start of this Congress.) He also introduced a measure that would, with very narrow exceptions, make it a crime for a doctor to knowingly perform an abortion.
“He has been consistent on protecting the interests of everybody – red, yellow, black, and white, they are precious in His sight – that’s already a citizen from the kinds of inherent crimes that come from having porous borders and sloppy enforcement,” Gordon says. “That resonates with people.”
Could the congressman be more thoughtful about his words and actions, and defend himself better against accusations of racism? Sure, Gordon says. But he believes the press is mostly to blame for twisting his words.
That’s because another thread common to King’s voters is a disregard for mainstream media. Some of the recent controversy surrounding King stems from reports that he met with members of a far-right party with alleged Nazi ties in Austria, endorsed a Canadian white nationalist candidate for mayor, and compared Mexican immigrants to dirt.
But to his supporters back home, that’s just biased journalists blowing things out of proportion. “It’s to a point,” Hall says, “where if you’re a true Christian conservative and the national media isn’t portraying you in a negative light, what are you doing wrong?”
Cracks in the conservative wall
In the weeks before the 2018 midterm election, headlines began crowing about the beginning of the end for King. His Democratic opponent, first-time candidate J.D. Scholten, was a young, energetic former professional baseball player who brought his message of rural development and common-sense health care across the district in a Winnebago.
Mr. Scholten drew national attention for his unlikely bid – and the fact that he outraised King throughout the campaign. The main challenge he faced was numbers: How many Republican or lean-Republican voters could he convince to switch sides?
“Not enough,” Scholten says, over coffee at a downtown cafe in Des Moines.
In the end, he lost to King by three percentage points, a close call that shocked political observers. Many saw it as a sign that times were changing in Iowa’s Fourth District, if slowly. “I’ve gotten congratulated more for losing than I ever have in my entire life,” Scholten says, grinning.
Cracks in the district’s conservative wall are showing even in King’s hometown. Storm Lake, a town of about 10,000 located some 70 miles east of Sioux City, is today 40 percent white, 37 percent Latino, and 15 percent Asian, home to immigrants – many unauthorized – from Mexico, El Salvador, and Laos, who came to work at the city’s meat processing plants. King won the county by just 50 votes.
At a diner there Sunday morning, José Ibarra, a first-term city councilman who came to the US from Mexico when he was 13, sips soda water as he explains how the changing makeup of the town is slowly changing mind-sets.
“There’s a lot of people here that know an immigrant who may be illegal,” Mr. Ibarra says. “They know that hey, these people? They just want to come here and work.”
And while it wasn’t enough to defeat King last fall, Ibarra is hopeful that there may be enough of a shift for someone else to take King’s seat in the next election. “2020 will be different,” he says. “I just feel it.”
Forces do seem to be building against King, even from within the GOP.
Last week, Iowa state Sen. Randy Feenstra, a Republican, announced he would challenge the congressman in the 2020 primary, saying the district deserves leadership without “sideshows or distractions.” Iowa’s Republican senators, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, have both publicly condemned him.
Even Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, whose 2016 presidential campaign King co-chaired until Mr. Cruz dropped out, criticized the congressman on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
One important ally
But King still has one important ally: the president. The two men have ties that predate Trump’s presidential bid. And they see eye to eye on immigration, with Trump in many ways legitimizing ideas that King has been promoting for years. On Monday, Trump claimed he hadn’t been following the recent controversy surrounding the congressman.
In a conversation with the Monitor just before the holidays, King defended himself against accusations of racism. The left, he says, has weaponized terms like “racist,” “Nazi,” and “white nationalist,” using them against anyone who dares to defend American values or the Constitution. “There are people that don’t like America the way it is,” he says, “and there are people that don’t like America when she was at her best. They want to tear down the systems we have. I don’t believe that. I think our Founding Fathers got it right.”
He would use a similar defense when taking to the House floor last week to address the reaction to the Times's article. “I am an advocate for Western civilization and its values,” he said. “This does not make me a white supremacist or white nationalist.” Instead, he called himself an “American nationalist.”
It’s a view King’s staunchest supporters share.
“America has its shortcomings. But as far as the good that it has done in the world, I think it’s unrivaled by any other country,” Hall says. “Why’s that so controversial to say?”
That doesn’t mean the congressman has a constituency that agrees with him on everything, Gordon adds. “What he has is a constituency that knows the kind of a man that he is,” he says. “That he is a good man, who has an identifiable moral compass, and that he will, in some reasonable fashion, represent them in the mess that is Congress.”
“I think he can have this job for as long as he wants.”